Unfiltered and unapologetic: The retiring Kimi Raikkonen on his time in F1

Kimi Raikkonen's first memory of racing a car dates back 32 years. He didn't have a driving licence at the time (he was only 10), but in the Finnish town of Espoo in the early 1990s, that didn't seem to matter. The car was an old Lada, which may or may not have been road legal, and the track was an improvised loop of the yard around his parent's house.

There were only two entrants in this historically significant racing series: Kimi and his older brother Rami. Kimi had ridden motocross bikes around the front yard for as long as he could remember, so he knew the track well and was pretty sure he could handle the step up from two wheels to four -- even if reaching the pedals was still a bit of a stretch.

"We had some old cars that we were able to drive in our yard," Raikkonen recalled in a recent interview with ESPN. "It wasn't a big yard, but there was a road to go up and then turn around and then it went back behind the house.

"So when we were like 10 years old and 12 years old, we had these old Ladas that we would drive starting just on the road and then full speed up towards the house. Sometimes we hit the tree or the corner of the house, but my mum and dad were kind of OK with it, so ..."

At this point in the interview it's impossible not to interrupt. The thought of a 10-year-old Kimi Raikkonen driving a Lada into a house requires an instant follow up: "Wait, you hit the corner of your parent's house?"

"I mean I hit it one time and then hit the tree on the other side, because there was the corner of the house and then the tree," Raikkonen responds, deadpan. "It's not like it broke the house or anything, but there were cracks on the concrete -- you know, the foundations.

"But mum and dad were OK with it because they felt it was better for us doing those things than being some stupid idiot at a railway station drinking or something. So, it was nice."

It turns out Raikkonen's parents were right. Those early days racing Ladas in the garden were the origins of a remarkable Formula One career that went on to span 21 years and result in a record-breaking 348 races (to date), 21 wins and one world championship. At Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix he will take part in race No. 349, which will be his last in Formula One.

After such a storied career, you might think that there's nothing left to learn about Raikkonen, but that couldn't be further from the truth. When he crosses the line for the final time in Abu Dhabi, he will do so as one of the most popular drivers in the sport but also one of the least understood.

It's undeniable that those two factors are in some way linked. For many, Raikkonen has achieved cult status precisely because he gives away so little in front of the cameras.

His short answers in interviews provide a blank canvas upon which tall tales from his early career of week-long drinking sessions and cross-continental partying paint a lurid picture. To the outside world, he is the last true rebel in a sport that has become increasingly homogenised by sponsor money and PR control.

But after 20 minutes talking face-to-face with Raikkonen, it's clear that he's not the enigma he's made out to be. Most of the stories that make up the Raikkonen legend are over a decade old, and in recent years he's certainly mellowed. He's now a family man, and when he retires from F1 on Sunday, his main aim is to spend a lot more time with his wife Minttu, and two young children, Robin and Rianna.

Not that he's made any plans.

"I don't want to make plans," he says. "We will go for a holiday after the season and then see. I am not in any hurry to decide anything. If something interesting comes along then I will do it, but we'll see."

Doing what he wants has been a core theme of Raikkonen's time in F1 -- whether it's reaching for an ice cream during a red flag period or taking two years off during the peak of his career -- and he believes it has been crucial to the longevity of his time in the sport.

"For sure there are lots of people who have tried to change me over the years, especially at the beginning," he says. "They said you should do this or that, but I never really listened to them -- and luckily not, because I don't think I could live my life doing something that makes other people happy.

"I think you can kind of do things to make people happy for a year or something, but it's never going to work in the long run. You will have a bigger issue.

"I got some s--- about it, but I never really cared about that. Luckily I have been fast enough that I still had my drive after all the things I did.

"Honestly, when people say to me, 'How can you do this or that and have nobody give you s--- about it?' I say, 'F--- that, it took me years and years of fighting against people and only now it works out.'

"I do my job and I do my thing, but I always take driving seriously. The rest I always said, I don't like it and I am not here for the interviews or anything else but the driving."

You don't have to search far on the internet to find stories that make you wonder how Raikkonen got away with doing "this or that" during his time in F1. A number occurred during his time at McLaren, when Raikkonen was shooting to fame in his early 20s and appeared to be partying as hard as he was racing (search "Raikkonen," "Gran Canaria" and "inflatable dolphin" for one such example).

His team boss at the time, Ron Dennis, was a certified control-freak who valued the image of his team almost as much as he valued its performance on track. Raikkonen's antics at that stage of his career did not always fit with Dennis' vision of what a Formula One driver should be, and on one occasion it nearly cost the Finn his job.

"Ron always wanted to do it his way because how he sees the whole team and its image [is one thing], and I completely understand but I wasn't ready to do that," Raikkonen says 15 years later.

"In most parts, yes it was fine, but in some parts he was absolutely not happy. That's life and we got through it, but afterwards there were some funny things to remember.

"I had my contract ripped and put in a bag and he gave it to me like that. But then I won the next race and he said, 'No, no, no, no, it's OK, let's forget the whole thing.'

"But I never cared about it, I always knew I was quick enough so I would sort it out one way or another. But I think my managers were always a bit on edge. They are good memories because it all worked out OK.

"People always felt like I had a s--- relationship with Ron, but I don't think I had a s--- relationship. For sure, we had some arguments and he needed to kick me out a few times, but fair play.

"I think as a person, if we wouldn't be sitting in the F1 paddock and we were just chatting about normal things, I always had a good relationship with him. Even when I saw him afterwards, I always joked with him.

"But I understand his position and we just saw the same thing with completely different eyes."

Perhaps Raikkonen is getting out of F1 at the right time. In an era when sports stars get "cancelled" for saying or doing the wrong thing, he's happy he isn't starting his career now.

"It's f---ing crazy -- in the world generally, I mean," he adds. "Because whatever you say, people will say, 'How can you say this?' and they can turn anything to look bad.

"It's a f---ing weird thing, it's f---ing crazy. People get crazy. I mean, I don't care. If I say something and someone gets upset, I honestly don't give a f---.

"If you insult somebody, fine, I understand why you get upset, but in general if you can't say something [because it upsets someone] ... I just stay out of it because I don't want to waste my time on this kind of bulls---. There are other things in life to worry about.

"But generally, it is difficult because everybody looks at what the people are saying and try to make more negative out of it more than anything else."

After his time at McLaren, Raikkonen moved to Ferrari, where he became world champion in his first season with the team in 2007. Even though it came shortly after Michael Schumacher's run of five titles in the early 2000s, Raikkonen's win was a big deal. Fourteen years later and he is still the last driver to win a championship with the Italian team.

But did becoming a world champion change Raikkonen at all?

"I don't think my life changed. I think people probably looked at me differently. They were asking different questions and they expected different things, but it didn't feel like my life itself changed. But why would it change?

"It was just a different result. People might look at you differently, but frankly I don't think it is a very good reason to look at you differently, do you know what I mean?

"I wouldn't look at Pedro [Cebrian, Alfa Romeo press officer] differently if he won. He'd be the same guy, you know? For sure, with Ferrari when we won both championships obviously in Italy they are very passionate about it, but that's nothing to complain about."

Two years later at the end of 2009, Raikkonen received a substantial payoff to leave F1 as Ferrari signed Fernando Alonso to replace him in 2010. It led to a two-year hiatus in Raikkonen's career, which he filled with rallying and even a short spell in NASCAR. But Raikkonen is not one to hold a grudge, and proof of the strength of his relationship with Ferrari came in 2014, when he returned to the team following two years at Lotus in 2012 and 2013.

"The stuff with Ferrari, I always felt that with the people that were important I had a good relationship," Raikkonen said. "Obviously they had their reasons, but I have no interest to talk about that and no issue with it as well.

"I always said at that time, I was more than happy to leave and I was quite fed up with all the politics and bulls--- in F1, so it was good to be out for a couple of years. Without that I wouldn't be here today, good and bad.

"So why would I start saying bad things about them? They had all their rights to put whoever they want in the car and I think we left in a good condition.

"Of course there were some people who were a bit so-so, but I don't care, you know? They felt they owned things but they didn't try to screw me over completely, so I have no issue with it."

It's clear that the longevity of Raikkonen's career is based on a few key factors. First and foremost was his performance behind the wheel -- without it he wouldn't have made it to F1 in the first place -- but also his determination to do things his way and not burn bridges. Whether that was down to a conscious decision or just a natural character trait, it means Raikkonen is still incredibly popular among the people who worked with him.

But even with his strong relationships in F1, it's hard to imagine Raikkonen hanging around the sport as a TV pundit or commentator. The only thing that might bring him back is if his kids want to follow in the family business, but he insists that is a long way off.

"We got a go-kart for [Robin] in Switzerland but we haven't had much time to use it because I'm always away," Raikkonen says. "It's very nice and I think Rianna wants to try, so maybe now before the snow comes we can go and try."

Much like his parents supported him in his youth and turned a blind eye to the cracked foundations of their house, Raikkonen is happy to support his kids in whatever they choose to do.

"I don't mind what it is, I'll enjoy it," he says. "I don't mind if it means I go there and clean the karts and do the mechanic stuff, for me it's fun and it's nice to see that they enjoy to do something.

"If something comes out of it, then great, but if not, great and I hope they have both found something that they are interested in."

It will be strange to start the 2022 season without Kimi on the grid, but if Robin and Rianna share their dad's love of racing, we may not have seen the last of the Raikkonen name just yet.